As ever, Spoilers.
There are only two episodes of Doctor Who that have ever made me cry. The first one was Forest of the Dead - River’s death scene was amazing, Alex Kingston sold the idea of a woman who had loved the Doctor so well that I couldn’t help but feel that the Doctor had lost something tremendous. It remains one of my very favourite scenes in the show.
The second episode that made me cry aired a few days ago, and I just got around to watching it last night. The tone of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe is like the last three scenes of Forest of the Dead stretched out over an entire episode. To be clear, and to keep from burying the lead: if you didn’t think this episode was good, you are wrong. You must have watched it wrong. Maybe your TV was broken.
Claire Skinner and Matt Smith absolutely shine in their scenes together. The emotional pitches that they hit are simply stunning, and Moffat’s dialogue is some of the best it’s ever been. Moffat’s stories often have sentimental notes, but here it is turned all the way up. And Skinner sells her grief so well, it is impossible not to empathize with her.
The title is an obvious reference to C.S. Lewis, of course, and the episode certainly contains thematic parallels: a father lost to the war, a family staying in the country to get away from the bombing, an old house and a strange box that leads to another world (and a snowy one, at that). But where it gets interesting is where the story deviates from, and especially where it actively rejects and subverts, the ideas of Lewis. In the title, the Doctor takes the place of Aslan/Jesus, and Madge is in place of the witch. The TARDIS, of course, is the wardrobe - it’s even lampshaded as such. But while the Doctor could conceivably be a Christ figure (even if he makes a better Odinic warrior), he doesn’t serve that role in the narrative here. Instead, he instigates the adventure and serves as a sort of tour guide / expository force. The action is centered around the Arwell family, and rightly so. Smith is channelling Troughton again here, lingering around the edges of the story and never taking center stage.
As for the other titular character, Madge is far from a bitter antagonist - she is the heroine of the story. And that leads us to what I’m going to call a tie for the best refutation of C.S. Lewis’ sexism that I’ve ever found (the other is The Problem of Susan). Lewis made it clear that women existed to support men - this motif is played out repeatedly between the brothers and sisters in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Of course, women have another option: they can be evil, literally frigid bitches. In other words, women are either weak or they are abhorrent.
Moffat, on the other hand, explicitly rejects this; the forest calls men ‘weak’ and women ‘strong’, and both female characters are at the center of the action, with Cyril, the son, playing the role of peril monkey. Lily gets the crucial scenes where she and the Doctor are looking for Cyril, and Madge gets… well, everything else. Coming to the rescue in a giant mech, running through acid rain, saving the population of a planet. And backing all of her actions is the distinctly feminine concept of motherhood. This is made explicit repeatedly, with the Doctor even making the inevitable ‘mothership’ pun. Madge draws her motivation and her power to the story from aspects of her identity that are intrinsically tied up with being female. This is Feminism in the tradition of the Female Mysteries of modern Paganism (and without even the biologically essentialist attitudes that are unfortunately common there). And speaking of Paganism, the carved/grown tree-people (and accompanying tower) have a distinctly Anglo-Saxon Pagan feel to them, which serves to make the story an even stronger counterpoint to Lewis’ work.
So, we have a very Pagan Christmas story with a theme of the fundamental power of womanhood. But the real focus of the story is on the importance of family, of celebrating life with people you love. It’s the sort of feel-good, heartwarming message that you might find on ABC Family. But we are saved from Seventh Heaven with Druids (Seventh Ogham?) by the superlative writing and acting. At no point does the theme feel heavy-handed or contrived; it flows naturally from the narrative.
But this is identifiably a holiday story, in the sense that it is themed along traditional holiday motifs. And, in that tradition, the Arwell family gets their presumed-dead father back. Frankly, I’m torn about this choice - I was annoyed when the very touching scene where A Mother Explains to Her Children About Their Father’s Death is interrupted for “oh, he’s not dead after all”. On the other hand, the subsequent scene is just as touching, with Skinner once again rising to the acting challenge and effectively conveying the amazed joy of someone who finds their lover isn’t dead after all.
No, I take that back. I’m not torn. Let the Arwell family have their father back. Maybe leaving him to die would be a stronger narrative, more raw and emotionally evocative. But it’s Christmas. Let’s embrace the aesthetic of Happily Ever After, at least this time. Just this once, everybody can live.
And now, about the Doctor. I said before that Smith was channelling Troughton in this episode. But his other seeming muse, Sylvester McCoy, is completely absent from this one. The Doctor has no great scheme here - he is simply trying to do something nice for a sad family. But significantly, the Doctor is shown to be much more human here than McCoy’s Doctor. Which isn’t surprising - one of Moffat’s key themes (and Tennant before him) is humanizing the Doctor. We have watched the Doctor learn how to love through the course of the new series. This is a sharp contrast to, well, all of the classic Doctors to some degree. But McCoy’s Doctor was the real cornerstone of this mode of being. Perhaps the best expression of the difference is from Human Nature, by Paul Cornell (the New Adventures novel, not the new series episode):
'I hope that one day, when I’m old, when my travels are over, and history has no more need of me, then I can be just a man again. And then, perhaps I’ll find those things in me that I’d need to love, also. not love like I do, a big love for big things, but that more dangerous love. The one that makes and kills human beings… It’s a dream I have.‘
The new series answers this quote by having the Doctor fall in love without ending his travels. This takes the form of romantic love twice, obviously. But this episode shows a distinctly platonic love towards Amy and Rory. The Doctor repeatedly talks about ‘happy crying’ as a human trait, and then does it himself when he realizes how much Amy and Rory care about him. This is the sort of emotional investment in a companion that we haven’t seen since Rose, and really didn’t see before that at all (sure, there was Susan, but frankly I have a hard time believing Hartnell’s Doctor loved anyone). Even Ace, who the Doctor seemed very paternal toward at times, was used by the Doctor as a pawn repeatedly.
The point is that the Doctor is a lot less Time Lord and a lot more Human than he used to be. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing - he’s still a mythic figure, and subject to the narrative and aesthetic rules of mythic figures. But he also has the capacity to enjoy Christmas dinner with his family. Let’s let him have that, too. It’s Christmas, after all.